On This Day

wild bill hickok, wild bill duel, wild bill hickok davis tutt
Legends of America
Wild Bill Hickok threatens the friend of Davis Tutt after defeating Tutt in a duel, in an illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1867.

On This Day: Wild Bill Hickok Kills Davis Tutt in a Duel

July 21, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 21, 1865, Wild Bill Hickok shot Davis Tutt in a duel in Springfield, Mo. The event became known as the first real shootout in Old West.

Wild Bill Hickock Duels Davis Tutt

Wild Bill Hickok was a Union scout who would become a Wild West legend after the release of an article in an 1867 edition Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The article, written by Col. George Ward Nichols, featured an account of Hickok killing Confederate veteran Davis Tutt in a duel.

On July 20, 1865, Hickok played cards at the Old South Hotel in Springfield, Mo., while Tutt watched and provided for Hickok’s opponents. Hickok had once been a friend of Tutt but the two had become enemies, likely due to a conflict over a woman named Susanna Moore.

Later that night, Tutt demanded that Hickok pay back a $35 debt owed to him, but Hickok, believing it to be $25, refused. Tutt stole Hickok’s pocket watch as collateral, and Hickok warned Tutt that he would shoot him if he wore the watch through town.

The next day, with the dispute over the sum of the debt not resolved, Tutt appeared in the town square with the watch. Hickok, standing about 75 yards away, called out to Tutt, who drew his weapon.

Richard Bentley Owen, called “Captain Honesty” in Nichols’ article, described the duel: “At that moment you could have heard a pin drop in that square. Both Tutt and Bill fired, but one discharge followed the other so quick that it’s hard to say which went off first. Tutt was a famous shot, but he missed this time; the ball from his pistol went over Bill's head. … Bill never shoots twice at the same man, and his ball went through Dave’s heart.”
Another version had Hickok drawing first,” writes James Bankes in Wild West magazine, “but then waiting for Tutt to shoot. After Tutt missed, Hickok rested his gun on his left arm to steady it and then shot him.”

Hickok then turned to Tutt’s friends, who had drawn their weapons. Quoting Owen, Nichols wrote: “‘Aren’t yer satisfied, gentlemen?’ cried Bill, as cool as an alligator. ‘Put up your shootin-irons, or there’ll be more dead men here. And they put ‘em up, and said it war a far fight.’”

Hickok was tried for manslaughter, but the jury, applying the “unwritten law of the ‘fair fight,’” acquitted him, writes Steven Lubet in the UCLA Law Review.

Biography: Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok was born in Illinois in 1837 and moved west as a teenager. In 1861, while working for the Overland Stage Company, he was involved in an incident at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska. When David C. McCanles, the station’s former owner, arrived with two other men and tried to reclaim the station, they were killed by Hickok and two other company men. 

In Nichols’ account, Hickok was said to have single-handedly killed McCanles and nine other men in the “McCanles Massacre”; in reality, writes Bankes, it is not certain whether Hickok even shot McCanles.

During the Civil War, he served as a scout, spy and detective for the Union and “may have picked up the nickname ‘Wild Bill’ during the Civil War period for his carefree, daring ways of living and fighting,” according to Bankes.

Hickok served bravely for the Union, but his exploits were not well known until after the Tutt duel and the Harper’s article. He then gained the reputation as a feared gunslinger who, according to his own claims, killed hundreds, though historians put the number at six or seven.

Yes, Wild Bill with his own hands has killed hundreds of men,” wrote Nichols. “Of that I have not a doubt. He shoots to kill, as they say on the border.”

“The real Hickok, however, was in complete contrast to his newspaper-inspired desperado image,” writes Hickok biographer Joseph G. Rosa in Wild West magazine. “Rather, he was gentlemanly, courteous, soft-spoken and graceful in manner, yet left no one in any doubt that he would not ‘be put upon,’ and if threatened would meet violence with violence.”

Despite his outlaw image, Hickok continued working as a scout and occasionally as a lawman. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer wrote highly of Hickok in his 1874 book, saying that his “influence among the frontiersmen was unbounded; his word was law.”

In August 1876, Wild Bill famously met his end in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D., while he was playing poker with his back to the door. Jack McCall entered through the back door; “From under his coat, McCall pulled a double-action .45 pistol, shouted ‘Take that!’ and shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly,” describes Legends of America.

Hickok was holding two aces, two eights and an unknown card when he was shot; aces and eights has since become known as the “dead man’s hand.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines